Even at this time the term “lady” was problematic as it connoted the royal stratification of England that thisfledgling democracy had rebelled against. The First Ladies themselves often did not like being called “lady,” eveninto the 20th and 21st centuries. Jackie Kennedy famously quipped that it sounded like the name of a prizedrace horse. Other terms, such as “Presidentress” and “Mrs. President” were used early on. Both terms workedwhen the woman filling the role of White House Hostess was the spouse of the President, but came short todescribe bachelor James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane. To remedy the problem, Leslie’s IllustratedNewspaper used the term “First Lady of the White House” to describe her, the first time the term First Lady wasseen in print. The term has stuck ever since.
When Theodore and Edith Roosevelt moved into the WhiteHouse in 1901, they brought six children with them. The crowdedliving and office space in the White House led PresidentRoosevelt to construct a new office building in 1902. Today thatbuilding is called the West Wing. Courtesy The Library of CongressHer Role
First Ladies were often the most famous women in America, and were able to influence, or at least were perceived to beable to influence, the President. Due to their position and proximity, proponents of causes would implore First Ladiesfor their aid and assistance, and sometimes were successful at finding a champion. Harriet Lane took an interest in theneeds of Native Americans. Mary Todd Lincoln advocated education, employment, and housing opportunities for freedslaves. Helen Taft inspected unsafe working conditions and used her influence to get health and safety laws passed.As the role of the First Lady as both an advocate and a ceremonial replacement for the President continued togrow, Edith Roosevelt became the first to have a federally hired social secretary. Lou Hoover then hired additionalsecretaries from her own funds, growing the staff of the First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to have apersonal secretary in addition to social and administrative secretaries, and Jackie Kennedy hired the first presssecretary. Soon appointments secretaries, speech writers, and, with Rosalyn Carter, a Chief of Staff came onboard, filling out a full staff to support the First Ladies’ projects and initiatives, as well as duties she performedon behalf of the President. Like their 19th century counterparts, 20th century First Ladies sponsored nationaland international causes, such as environmentalism, volunteerism, women’s rights, literacy, and treatment fordrug dependency. Laura Bush worked to further libraries, education, and the National Parks, and Michelle Obama iscurrently working to counter childhood obesity through healthy eating and exercise. Often these causes will beinterwoven into the ceremonial functions of the White House, such as themed Christmas decorations under Mrs. Bush, or a ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move’ Easter Egg Roll under Mrs. Obama.
The American public has also been fascinated with the First Ladies as trendsetters in style, fashion, entertaining, andhome design. After Frances Folsom Cleveland married President Cleveland in June 1886, women imitated herhairstyle and advertisers used her image to sell products. Mamie Eisenhower was named by the Dress Institute as oneof the 12 Best Dressed Women in America in 1952 and was lauded for her use of color coordination and matching accessories, which then began to be imitated across the country. Jackie Kennedy worked to historically preserve the White House and her special tours of the House were televised. She was also considered extremely fashionable and her style is still imitated today. Nancy Reagan was known for her signature color red, which appeared in the White House China service and in her wardrobe.
Inaugural gowns have been a popular fascination spanning the centuries and many are held preserved in theSmithsonian. What a First Lady wore to inauguration often set the tone for that social season in Washingtoneven going back to the 19th century. Over time, the interest in First Ladies has gone beyond the traditionallyfeminine roles of fashion and home, to include their educational background and what they are reading. Thethree most recent First Ladies have all had masters’ degrees, and their reading lists, whether officially releasedon the White House website or gathered by avid fans, are extremely popular, as are their biographies, whetherthey be autobiographies, official, or unofficial.
As the personification of American power, the President of the United States and his family face continualscrutiny and criticism. First Ladies have been criticized for doing too much and for not doing enough. Some havebeen praised for their looks or fashion, and others have been less kindly treated. Each woman has had to makeher own rules and define her own role without both the guidance and limitations of the Constitution. As it has inthe past, this role will continue to change and adapt -- someday there may even be a “First Gentleman.”
Bibliography"The First Lady." The First Lady & Her Role. George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
National First Ladies’ Library, The Role of First Lady and Origin of the Title "First Lady"